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Americans should banish 'trying' to do things

Shrugging is French. Accepting is English. Trying is American, which is rooted in a fear of failure.

By Chuck Cohen / October 5, 2007



I was recently on a flight from Grand Junction, Colo., to Denver. Ten minutes later and 10,000 feet into the air, the pilot announced we were turning back. The cargo door wasn't shut. I had visions of my suitcase tumbling down mountain crevices, my socks impaled on the horns of a mountain goat.

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We returned. With a loud clang, the cargo door was closed. As we started back down the runway, the pilot attempted to reassure us by cheerily announcing, "We're going to try again."

Try? He was going to "try" to fly to Denver? After I stopped shaking – about 20 minutes into our "trying" flight – I decided that trying to do something has become very much an American phenomenon. Shrugging is French. Accepting is English. Trying is American.

It is probably because if people are trying they can't be blamed for what Americans consider the real tragedy – failing. The reasoning is circular, but it goes something like this: If you try, you can't fail because you tried. Only nontryers are failures.

It starts, where everything begins, in school with our children. "Look how hard little Bernie is trying to hit the ball." It doesn't matter whether little Bernard actually hits the ball. What is important is that he tried. I can't tell you how many mothers I encountered during my son's school years who were apoplectic that their children didn't make a sports team. "He tried to throw the football. It's not his fault he can't throw the football."

But trying isn't just confined to sports. A school where I once lived initiated a "gifted" program for the top 10 percent of students. Unfortunately, the furor from the parents whose children were tryers rather than succeeders forced the principal to create a second gifted program, the "profoundly gifted" class. By the time the exhausted administration was through creating gifted programs for all those who "tried," one grade had only one child who was not in a gifted class.

A few years later, I heard a parent explain to his daughter, a high school senior who had not done well on either her grades or SATs, that she should still "try to get into Harvard." "If you try to write a really good essay, I think you'll get in." Huh? I must have missed the "good-try" category for Harvard admissions.

The problem is that failing is not considered appropriate for an American. Look how we venerate coaches who blow up at their losing players instead of accepting that there always has to be a losing team, unless you're talking about cricket. (There's no losing team in cricket because the match goes on so long that, by the end, the people watching it are either asleep or deceased.)

So, how about eliminating "try" and all its variations from our vocabulary? Phrases like "good try" or "at least he tried" will no longer be used as excuses for failure. Let's replace "try" with "participate," which connotes no meaning other than, well, participating. It means that you're actually doing something rather than sitting on the sidelines afraid to enter the contest for fear of not emerging victorious, or, worst of all, not trying.

• Chuck Cohen is a writer in Mill Valley, Calif.

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